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DICK FRANCIS INTERVIEW - August 1997

100 price cuts weeks after release, months of waiting for UK versions of games, shoddy, slow PAL conversions, higher prices than anywhere in the world... seriously, why DOES Nintendo appear to hate Europeans so much? Everyone moans about it, but no-one appears to have actually tried to find out why. Until now. N64 despatched a fearless team of shadowy undercover agents to DEMAND ANSWERS, and where better to start than at the top, with THE head man and popular horse-racing novellist Dick Francis?

 

N64: So, Dick, why DOES Nintendo hate Europeans so much?

DF: Ha ha! I don’t think they have any particular bent in that direction

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N64: So why the high prices, six-month delays for games...

DF: I don’t think there’s a six-month gap between Japanese/US and PAL versions of games.

 

N64: Well, there is. Even allowing for the first batch of titles (which were bound to come out at least 9 months later simply because the machine hadn’t been released here), most titles arrive between 4 and 6 months after their NTSC counterparts. Starfox and Blast Corps, say, have been out in Japan and the US for ages, yet we’re still waiting for the PAL versions.

DF: Well, any manufacturer looks after the biggest markets first. It’s not just about time either, it’s about priorities. As for the prices, you have to remember that other territories don’t have to pay VAT, which puts 17.5% straight on top, and that UK retail margins are among the highest in the world, far higher than Japn or the US.

 

N64: So here’s an idea – why don’t Nintendo just not bother releasing PAL machines at all? Think about it – superior grey imports already cost the same or less as official N64s, after the initial frenzy has died off. If there was no UK version, Dixons and Electronics Boutique and everyone else would sell the imported machines, as happens with many other consumer items, and the competition would bring the price down even further. Nintendo would still get to sell all the machines (more, in fact), but without the hassle and expense of maintaining big European offices, converting games to PAL and all the rest of it. Everyone would be happy.

DF: I just can’t see that that would work. For a start, everyone would have to buy a step-down transformer, and I wouldn’t recommend using one of those. The machines wouldn’t be covered by any EEC regulations, they wouldn’t be CE-marked, there wouldn’t be guarantees...

 

N64: That’s not really accurate. Every importer we know offers guarantees with the machine. Step-down transformers only cost 20, and we’ve never heard of them causing any problems of any kind.

DF: You’ve also got the service issue. We run the Nintendo Hotline, completely free of charge, for example. You simply wouldn’t get the brand support we provide if you were buying import machines, it wouldn’t exist.

 

N64: It could be argued that the brand support is lacking in certain areas anyway. We’re thinking here of some of the inferior PAL conversions of top games, like Mario Kart and Wave Race...

DF: Well, saying they’re inferior is just a matter of personal opinion.

 

N64: No it’s not, they’re demonstrably inferior – Mario Kart runs nearly 20% slower than the NTSC versions, Wave Race has those big black borders...

DF: Wave Race doesn’t have big black borders.

 

N64: It does if you’re playing the PAL version.

DF: Not on mine it doesn’t.

 

N64: Er...

DF: I certainly haven’t seen any big borders.

 

N64: Um...

DF: I don’t know enough about the technical side to explain it all properly. You need to talk to someone who knows about that kind of thing. I’ll get someone to ring you. Bye.

 

The "I see no ships" angle wasn’t one we’d been expecting, but we carried on gamely. While we waited for THE’s technical expert to call, we decided to try ringing someone who’d demonstrated what COULD be done with PAL versions. Konami’s ISS64 is the benchmark for conversions, running full-screen and (in fact) slightly faster than it’s Japanese counterpart, J-League Perfect Striker. We asked the company’s Jon Sloan exactly how much trouble it was to do things properly.

"The situation varies from game to game, but as a ballpark figure I’d say it takes about 3 to 4 months to do a full-screen PAL conversion. One of the factors you have to watch out for is that Japanese programming teams put phenomenal hours when a game’s near completion – they actually sleep in dormitories at work, never leaving the building. What that means is that when they finally finish the Japanese version, they take a month off straight away, so it’s several weeks before you can even get started."

N64: And what about the economics of the situation?

JS: It certainly adds to the cost, but that can be offset – a game like ISS 64, for example, is actually tweaked and improved while it’s being converted to PAL (the UK version actually runs FASTER than the original). What happens then is that the enhanced and altered PAL version is re-converted back to NTSC and sold in Japan as a special "Perfect Striker World Edition" [The original version of ISS featured club teams and was called "J-League Perfect Striker" in Japan – Ed], which helps recoup the costs.

 

N64: But is it worth the effort? Apart from magazines and purists, though, does anyone actually care?

JS: It doesn’t make much difference to the casual gamer, and since even the biggest-selling mags only reach about 10% of the total market, casual gamers are by far the majority. But it certainly helps with reviews – I’d say it’s worth up to 5% extra, and that can make the difference between an 88% review and a 93%.

 

N64: Which, as any student of games market economics will know, is all the difference in the world.

JS: Indeed.

No sooner had we put the phone down on Jon than it rang again. Excitingly, it was a THE technical employee, who asked to be known only as "Mister N". We wasted no time.

N64: "Mister N", presumably as a Technical Employee, you know how much time it takes to convert a title to full-screen, full-speed PAL. You’ve had plenty of time with all the releases so far – why hasn’t it happened?

MN: Well, it’s all a compromise between launch times and optimisations – we do manage to do it some of the time, as with Shadows Of The Empire. With other titles, there sometimes just isn’t the time – Mario Kart was released well ahead of its original scheduling, for example.

 

N64: But still months after the NTSC one – there was more than enough time to do a decent PAL job on it. Isn’t it the case that something like Mario Kart would sell regardless of how poorly it was converted, whereas the likes of Shadows needed every edge it could get?

MN: I don’t think it’s that cynical – it depends a lot on where the game’s originally coded, too.

 

N64: And even if it wasn’t full screen, couldn’t the timings at least be kept the same? As it is, European gamers simply can’t join in the same fun as everyone else in the world, because our lap times are completely different to theirs, and that’s half the enjoyment of a game like Mario Kart.

MN: I don’t know about that. Maybe we get the clock counting up in odd numbers or something.

 

N64: What?

MN: I do think it’s something that’s important to the man in the street, though, and the whole issue is something that’s being addressed. Lots of companies ARE optimising these days, and of course you’ve got the likes of Rare who originate their games here and make sure they run at the same speed everywhere.

 

N64: So why aren’t Nintendo doing it? Surely they should be setting the example?

MN: Ooh, is that the time?

All of which, ultimately, gets us no further forward than we started. The only conclusion we feel able to draw from the episode is that Nintendo are rather sitting on their laurels – they know that their reputation will sell games like Mario 64, Wave Race, Pilotwings and Mazza Kart regardless of any technical shortcomings, so why bother going to the time and expense? Everyone else (especially as their games are even more expensive than the already-frightening Nintendo titles) has to try a bit harder, so they tend to do the job properly. It’s a rotten state of affairs, but, unless you’re prepared to buy an import machine and take your chances, you might as well get used to it.

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